Last week, the Freedom From Religion Foundation released audio recordings showing how the Trump administration, in cooperation with the Small Business Administration (SBA), has deliberately and explicitly directed PPP funds towards faith-based organizations through a series of “tele-town-hall” meetings with church leaders.
It’s a violation of church-state separation and it rewards pro-Trump churches for their political stance with enhanced access to taxpayer-funded aid (via direct encouragement and assistance from well-positioned White House contacts). But it’s also a violation of the purpose of the CARES Act, which promised economic relief in a time when quarantine measures threatened workers’ livelihoods and economic survival.
The Paycheck Protection Program in particular was meant to help small businesses stay afloat without massive layoffs. It wasn’t meant for all businesses, nor even all small businesses; it was there to help those who needed it most. Access required applicants to affirm that pandemic-related financial problems rendered the loan “necessary to support the ongoing operations” of their organization.
But the administration relied largely on applicants’ good-faith statements without verification to determine who was eligible. Shockingly little was done to flag even the most blatant misrepresentations.
Consider, for instance, the case of the Dr. James Dobson Family Institute, an organization whose namesake is best known for founding Focus on the Family.
The government began accepting PPP applications on April 3 of this year; on April 6, the Institute was awarded a loan of between $350,000 and $1 million. (The Treasury Department currently puts the average loan size at just over $100,000.) According to ProPublica, the money was rewarded under the industrial category of “outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers.”
That’s the first red flag. Per their own mission statement, this organization has nothing to do with outpatient mental health care or substance abuse support:
The core mission of the Dr. James Dobson Family Institute is preserving the biblical institution of marriage by encouraging, inspiring, supporting, and leading families to build their lives on God’s Word. Our mission is driven by Dr. James Dobson’s legacy of serving families with broadcasts, videos, articles, leadership training, and policy advocacy to ensure the next generation of families are equipped to stand firm with answers to life’s most difficult questions.=
Considering how the Institute builds its brand around upholding patriarchy and enforcing heterosexuality at any cost, the only way they could plausibly claim substance abuse and mental health problems as two of their primary outputs is by driving people to seek help in those areas. I’m guessing that’s not what they’re going for. Which means they’re a socially conservative advocacy organization, plain and simple.
So why misrepresent themselves? And if they’ve been dishonest here, where else?
Dobson has stated that the Family Institute has “literally been kept solvent” by the PPP grant they were able to snag. Technically, this is true: The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) reports them running in the red at the end of the last fiscal year (excluding operating reserves).
But accepting the claim at face value requires you to ignore the success of other branches of Dobson’s evangelical empire.
James Dobson is affiliated with five different organizations that do more or less the same thing: they advocate for a Christian understanding of sexuality, marriage, and family to be imposed on all social institutions. There’s Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal advocacy group, and the Family Research Council, which produces junk science aimed at defaming the LGBTQ community. (Both are considered extremist groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center.)
Then there’s Focus on the Family and the Family Policy Alliance, which both seem to do roughly the same thing as the Family Institute: They create Christian media products to promote a strictly-defined and exclusionary vision of gender, sexuality, marriage, parenthood, and family life that they call biblical, though it bears more resemblance to a 1950s sitcom with fewer redeeming qualities.
Despite their extremely similar goals, legally, these are five separate organizations. The same is true of all Dobson’s other organizations.
When it comes to small business loans and policy benefits, that matters.
If these organizations were considered different departments in the same company, there would be no question about eligibility for small-business loans. Focus on the Family alone has nearly 900 employees. (The PPP loans were meant to help businesses with 500 employees or fewer.)
And, while the Family Institute might be running in the red, Focus on the Family boasts net assets of over $52 million, with additional millions in the operational reserves of the Family Research Council and Alliance Defending Freedom.
But for financial and legal purposes, organizations are considered affiliated if they are connected for purely administrative reasons. Because Dobson’s organizations are connected by their beliefs and agendas, they count as separate entities — no matter how similar their mandates or how closely their operations connect.
It’s a legal bait-and-switch that lets Dobson be eligible for PPP funding.
Meanwhile, the politicians who put the system in place manage to come across as champions for the little guy, lending a helping hand to the hard-working dreamers of boot-strap America. Dobson even plays into that framing himself; during his brief appearance in one “tele-town-hall,” he invoked his childhood as a barely-getting-by preacher’s kid to further obscure what his presence really represents: a government that bails out evangelicals with millions of dollars in the bank and clear, unambiguous ties to the Trump administration.
(Screenshot via YouTube)